Article

September 8th, 2021

Educator Voice: Twenty years after 9/11, this NYC teacher pushes for “health of all survivors” — including her own students

EducationEducator VoiceELASocial StudiesU.S. history
The creators and original cast of with their eyes: September 11th — the view from a high school at ground zero. Front row: Chantelle Williams, Cathy Choy, Lindsay Long-Waldor, Anna Belc, Taresh Batra, Shanleigh Jalea.Back row: Michael Vogel, Carlos Williams, Marcel Briones, Liz O’Callahan, Tim Drinan, Chris Yee, Annie Thoms, Ilena George

 

If you or someone you know lived, worked or went to school in the area around the World Trade Center during and after 9/11, and want to determine eligibility for the WTC Health Program or just learn more about the health effects of the disaster, visit www.stuyhealth.org.

by Annie Thoms, English teacher, Stuyvesant High School, New York City

Twenty years ago this week, I was starting my second year of teaching English at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks away from the World Trade Center. When the semester began, we did not know our lives would be interrupted, our community displaced, the world irrevocably changed.

It’s September again, 20 years later. I am about to return to the classroom after a year and a half of remote pandemic teaching from my basement in Brooklyn: our lives interrupted, our communities displaced, the world irrevocably changed.

I have thought a lot since last March about what it means to be part of a disaster community. In the months after 9/11, I worked with Stuyvesant students to create with their eyes, a play made of interview-based monologues capturing the stories of Stuyvesant students, faculty and staff. I teach this play to my seniors nearly every year, as a mentor text when they craft their own interview-based monologues. It is an exercise in empathy and complexity, the recognition that every person has a story to tell, and that listening to each other’s stories increases our understanding that there is no accurate single story of any event.

…listening to each other’s stories increases our understanding that there is no accurate single story of any event.

The seniors I taught in the spring of 2020 were not yet born on 9/11—it is history to them. Yet the play resonated with them strongly as they grappled with the scale of the disaster they were experiencing. They missed each other, and our building. They feared for the safety of their families, both from the virus sweeping through New York City and from anti-Asian harassment and violence that threatened them on the streets—so terribly similar to the racist anti-Muslim backlash described by one speaker in with their eyes. They looked for ways to feel normal. They knew they were living through history.

RELATED: Column: I was there on 9/11. Now it’s a history lesson that I teach

The students I taught in 2001 are now adults, older than I was on 9/11. Many of them are still dealing with the psychological and physical after-effects of their experience. In her new memoir, Some Kids Left Behind: A Survivor’s Fight for Healthcare in the Wake of 9/11, Lila Nordstrom (Stuyvesant ’02) chronicles the dangerous conditions present in lower Manhattan when we all returned to Stuyvesant in October of 2001.

Ashes from ground zero hung in the air, a barge of smoking debris sat in the Hudson River just north of our building, and we learned later that the ventilation system was not properly cleaned for many months after our return. Lila founded the organization StuyHealth in order to advocate for health coverage for the young people who were exposed to these conditions, and succeeded in getting them included in the World Trade Center Health Program.

We know, from the aftermath of 9/11 and other disasters, that our institutions often do not protect the most vulnerable, including young people.

Lila and her cohort have experienced a host of physical ailments uncommon in people of their age, including a worrisome cluster of cancers. One of these claimed the life of the extraordinary Catherine Choy. At age 15, Cathy was one of the co-creators of with their eyes (see cover photo). At 30, newly married and working as a community-based public health researcher focused on Asian American communities, she was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. She died two years ago, at age 32. Under the WTC Health Program, her cancer and other covered conditions are presumed by the federal government to be linked to 9/11. The toll of the disaster continues to rise.

RELATED: What it was like to watch the 9/11 attacks from your classroom window

The same will be true for my current students in this pandemic. We know, from the aftermath of 9/11 and other disasters, that our institutions often do not protect the most vulnerable, including young people. We know that kids need reliable care for their mental and physical health.

Those of us who are returning to the classroom as educators this fall will focus our energy and creativity on giving students space to process their experience and grow beyond it —but survivors of this disaster will need broader societal support. As we remember 9/11 this year, let us learn from it, and fight for systems that support the health of all survivors. We are all part of this disaster community.


Annie Thoms has been an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School (her alma mater) since 2000, with a few breaks to care for her three children and to work as a Teacher Consultant with the NYC Writing Project. She is the editor of the play with their eyes: September 11th — the view from a high school at ground zero.


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